As well as rendering infected birds unfit for sale, the fear is that the H5N1 strain of bird flu will mutate to a strain which could pass between humans causing a pandemic. This fear is so serious that 600,000 chickens have already been killed in Bangladesh over the past year. Yesterday new outbreak was diagnosed and 150,000 more chickens lives are currently being ended – wasted – outside Dhaka.
So what? Weren’t they going to die anyway?
I don’t want to diminish the importance of cheap nutritious food. Whether we can get affordable protein in sufficient amounts for our growing population (both a human success to celebrate and another extremely sensitive personal and policy question) without intensively farming animals is up in the air, although the vegan society would claim strongly that we can.
Here are the ethical concerns systematically laid out by the University of Nottingham’s bioethics department. I find the contradictions involved in respecting and not instrumentalising animals you ultimately plan to kill and eat very difficult to cope with although, from a progressive point of view, I can immediately see that the regard they are proposing for farmed animals would be a huge improvement on current circumstances.
Intensive farming is both horribly cruel (it was a documentary on the life of an intensively-farmed chicken which turned me vegetarian overnight aged 13 and haunt me still) and prone, as all overcrowded humans and animals are, to outbreaks of disease which threaten human health. There are also environmental concerns.
These animals are sentient – I’m not sure about chickens (they can certainly suffer but being the proletariat of the farmed world, there is less research into their sentience) but cows, sheep and pigs can feel afraid, bored, peaceful, bereft. The fact that these animals are sacrificed in their thousands as if they were a bad batch of manufactured products in order to clear the way for a new batch is something anybody who uses animals for food or clothing should question. More and more we hear about the perfunctory slaughter and incineration of thousands of animals with infections from which they would, in the normal course of things, recover, in order that our current methods of food production can continue.
In the original sense of the word, a mass burnt sacrifice, and without thinking of farmers or meat-eaters as Nazis, I increasingly find myself thinking of these collective deaths as a holocaust. Whether or not this is an appropriate analogy rests on whether there is an alternative to current methods of food production – not just for an affluent resident of Barkingside but also for a person of small means in the Dhaka suburbs. It also depends on whether you think that animal deaths should ever have the same weight as human deaths or whether, strongly anthropocentric, you believe that this is an affront to human dignity. I think that animal deaths should in some circumstances have the same weight as human ones.
The right to feed oneself is elemental to our fundamental right to life. Is it so far-fetched to say that we should only eat animals when we don’t have the capacity to live well without them?